On the last day of March and first of April, the Park Hotel at Heathrow hosted a modest hi-fi show. Though small, it was a hi-fi show with a difference, notable for the absence of home cinema AV equipment, and an impressive roster of unusual and interesting stereo hi-fi dems. Most surprising was that no fewer than five of the 40-odd demonstrations were using horn-loaded loudspeakers, and I’ve picked one of the most interesting to review here. It’s called the Vivace, costs £2995 a pair and comes from a Canadian company called Gemme Audio, via Brighton-based Alium Audio.
For all their idiosyncracies – and these are undeniable – I do like horn speakers. They’re usually imperfect, but that’s partly what makes them interesting. They also have something the French would call ‘je ne sais quoi’ that imbues them with a sense of realism not found in more conventional designs. Without exaggeration, one can even describe them as refreshing the parts of the brain that normal speakers fail to reach, even though that phrase’s ring of familiarity comes from a different context.
Horn speaker systems come in several varieties: single driver hornloaded; multi-driver/multi-horn; and multi-driver with direct radiating bass, sometimes actively driven. Each involves different compromises, and many are handicapped by their weird shape and considerable bulk.
For the purist, the horn-loaded speaker with the solitary full range driver is arguably the most interesting, for two clear reasons. First, it avoids the need for any form of crossover network. (Last issue I reviewed two versions of the ART Emotion loudspeaker, differing only in their crossover components, internal wiring, and a small matter of £4,000; clearly all forms of crossover network are better avoided!)
Secondly, it reproduces the entire audio range from a single source, which should in theory be ideal. However, because in truth it’s virtually impossible to achieve the full three-decade audio bandwidth from a single driver – and even if this were possible there would be compromises due to directivity at high frequencies – it’s also bound to be compromised, which at least makes life interesting for the reviewer and reader.
While I steadfastly refuse to make sound quality judgements at hi-fi shows, I was sufficiently impressed by what I heard in the Alium room to suggest I should like to try them at home. A few weeks later they brought them over and we settled down for a listen.
First impressions were mostly (though not totally) positive, and mostly (though not totally) as anticipated. The Vivace might be a floorstander, but the enclosure is reasonably compact, especially for a horn, and it uses what must surely be the smallest main driver on the planet, with a cone just 70mm in diameter. Limited bass output was therefore only to be expected, while the surprise was that the speaker actually packed a rather healthy thump, enough to make it sound much bigger than is actually the case.
Less surprising was the rather forthright and in-the-face upper mid and presence, which certainly takes no prisoners as far as the driving electronics are concerned, and tended to expose the midrange shortcomings of my regular Naim solid state amplification. Changing over to my restored Leak Stereo 20, fed from a Creek OBH-22 passive pre-amp resulted in a more sympathetic overall partnership, with sweeter, more transparent and less aggressive mid and presence, and a softer, less thumpy bottom end. Which is not to say that the Leak/Creek combo is better than the vastly more expensive Naim pre/power; rather that it suited the peccadilloes of the speaker rather better in this instance, for reasons that measurements subsequently went some way towards confirming.
Before going further down that road, some description of the speaker itself is overdue. The enclosure is a little less than a metre tall, is reasonably slim yet quite deep, with sides that narrow towards front and back. The front, back (finished in black with horizontal stripe decoration) and the lustrously veneered sides all have curved profiles and feel immensely stiff and strong, especially the protruding front panel. The top has a black lacquer finish, and the whole thing weighs a daunting 36kg, which is evidence of just how much material has gone into the cabinetwork. No grille was supplied, and the only driver is the very small and unusual looking Fostex FE108E Sigma, a nominally 100mm driver with massive cast frame, curiously wrinkled surround, and a 70mm cone with three radial stiffening pleats that are echoed in its central dust cover. The only vent is a single hole halfway up the back panel, which looks much more like a reflex port than a horn mouth. The whole thing sits on an impressively solid tripod arrangement with a single cone at the front, and two more on a massive steel outrigger at the rear, ensuring fine stability.